THE WIZARD OF TRUE CRIME
After writing about India's Most Notorious Serial Killers in his book The Deadly Dozen, Anirban Bhattacharyya is back with another true story behind one of India's biggest and most sensational bank heists in his latest, India's Money Heist. In conversation with the Storizen team, he tells us about his journey so far.
Itis indeed an honor to have a conversation with you. The first and foremost question is - are you not afraid of crime and the terrors?
The honor is all mine – to be featured by your esteemed magazine for the second time… I am completely stoked. The world of true crime fascinates me – and when I research these stories I feel like an investigator who is slowly digging up the clues and solving the case again, albeit on paper. Like anybody else I too would not want to be mired in criminal activity, or be confronted by or be at the mercy of a criminal. But as a writer I am writing about solved cases.
When did you first find interest in this topic? What was the first book or article on the crime you read?
You will be surprised perhaps when I tell you that most of us start reading crime books at the age of 8. The Secret Seven, Famous 5, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew are actually crime stories, aren’t they? Softer crimes no doubt, but crime stories nonetheless! And later I moved on to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Feluda, and Byomkesh Bakshi.
Savdhaan India is one of the most watched and talked about shows. Did any particular case haunt you? How did you compose yourself?
Daniel Wallace in his epic novel Big Fish says – ‘when a man’s stories are remembered, then he is immortal.’ Or as Shakespeare wrote in his sonnet – ‘Do thy worst old Time: despite thy wrong, My love shall in my verse ever live young.’ As authors and content creators we are unconsciously leaving behind our creations for future generations. We will be gone in a few years… but our books, paintings, TV shows, music, movies, corporations, and companies all live beyond our human years thus making the artist or the creator immortal, in a vain sort of way.
When did you want to write a novel? How did the genesis happen?
Being an English Literature student (St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata) I always wanted to be an author. And though I wanted to debut with fiction. As my creative background was steeped in Savdhaan and true crime – the publisher and of course the author would be able to leverage
that. And the readers would take the book seriously knowing that it is coming from a world of authenticity. Within a week I think, Gurven Chadha, the editor from Penguin got back saying they want to commission the book on the serial killers of India. By God’s grace, it has since, become a No.1 Bestseller and has received amazing reviews and endorsements.
Before writing a story, how do you plan the plot? What kind of research happens?
When one is writing non-fiction, research is key. And for me I spend months on end diving through thousands of documents, and legal papers, interviewing people before I start to put a structure down on paper. For example when I wrote about Thug Behram who lived in the 1800’s I had to dive into the historical archives of libraries in
India and abroad to find firstperson accounts of the man and the crimes that he had committed. For my latest book India’s Money Heist, because I was writing and researching the book during the pandemic – it was all done online through hundreds of hours of interviews over video calls, and of course poring through hundreds of pages of legal documents, articles, and more.
India's Money Heist, your new book, the title is attractive. What made you choose Kerala's bank robbery incident to be your story?
As a showrunner, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to tell the story of a real-life bank heist. I googled ‘India’s biggest bank robbery’ and there it was on my laptop screen. The Chelembra bank robbery (2007).
31st December 2007. New Year's Eve. A sleepy town in Kerala called Chelembra finds itself in the national headlines for India's biggest bank heist to the tune of a whopping Rs 8 crore which included 80 kg of gold. A crime that was supposedly inspired by a Bollywood blockbuster, this is the sensational story of that heist seen from both sides of the coin-the planning and execution by the mastermind criminals, and the difficult, yet thrilling, investigation by the Kerala police team led by P. Vijayan.
9 years passed by. In 2020, during the pandemic, I reached out to my erstwhile classmate Rajesh Abraham, who lives in Kochi. All I had was a name: P Vijayan, the man who had solved the case along with his team. I asked him if he could help me get in touch with him. I was pleasantly shocked when he said that he was going to meet the man the next day! That was a moment of serendipity! I think the sheer audacity of the criminals, the perfect planning of the crime, the way the criminals led the police on a wild-goose chase, and the determination of the cops to solve the case – all of these attracted me to tell the story. It is a landmark case solved by the Kerala Police and the country needed to know about this thrilling case.
And so after 10 years of chasing the story, it was finally published in 2022 by Penguin and launched in Kochi by the superstar Mohanlal.
Writing crime thriller stories is not an easy task. Do you give more stress on the characters or the narration?
For me both matter…if one does not build the characters properly – there will be no depth. The reader will not have empathy, sympathy, hate, or love for the character… then it is a wasted effort. The narration matters as it is a crime story – the pacing, the detailing, the research, the authenticity, the humor, the emotions – all of these are crucial elements to building the narrative. And my writing style is very visual. I want the readers to feel that they are watching a movie on the pages. So both are crucial for the book to be good.
What is your writing process is it instinctive or storyboard mapping style?
For my non-fiction it is the research, the chronology of the events that help me to lay down the first structure for me to understand the entire story – the genesis, the planning, the crime, the aftermath, and the arrest… but when I am writing the story it is a very organic
process, almost a stream of consciousness kind of an experience. I fracture time, I travel back and forth, I take the readers down side paths… there is no story mapping or any technical mumbo-jumbo that I do when I write. Not even for fiction.
Who is your favorite author in the crime thriller genre? Why? And what do you like in their books?
I have stopped reading crime books. I don’t want the writing styles or tropes used by other authors to influence me even if it is done unconsciously. I want my writing style to be as organic, honest, and real as possible. So I read Murakami, Pico Iyer, Bill Bryson, and my favorite author Amitav Ghosh.
In this book, India's Money Heist, which is your favorite part?
I think what really defines this story at the end are the characters. Every one of them is unique – Vikraman, Mohanachandran, Assainar, Shaukat
Ali, Vijayan sir, Babu, Shibu, the Haji duo… all of them are unique. I studied each of them – going into their personal lives and bringing the entire character to the reader. For me the book is not about a true crime case – that is secondary. For me, a story is about the people who drive the narrative.
Few words to our subscribers and readers.
Read Indian novelists and books. Go to the physical bookstores and buy a book – even if it is just a magazine. All of us prefer to buy books online for the discounts and the ease… but support bookstores. If you buy two books in a month – buy one from the store!
I want to thank P. Vijayan IPS (IGP, Kerala) and his entire investigating team without whose contributions this book would not have been possible. I want to thank SuhailMathur and The Book Bakers. A huge thank you to Penguin India and Penguin Random House India. I have been blessed to
have Gurveen Chadha again as my editor. The book would not have been possible without the support of my family. And finally thank you to Saurabh Chawla and Storizen for being so gracious, generous, and kind to give space to my book, and allow me to share it with the readers. Thank You!
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About Pria - Young mesmerizing freelance blogger, social enthusiast, an economics graduate from Jharkhand University with Master in Child Psychology. She is hardworking yet crazy, a passionate reader, an ardent music fanatic, an avid caffeine lover, and a maniacal animal lover too.
She has been a part of numerous anthologies, articles, and write-ups for newspapers and magazines which are multi-linguistic. She has also written screenplays for YouTube series.